MACHINE GUN PREACHER
Directed by: Mark Forster
Written by: Jason Keller, Sam Childers (memoir, “Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan”)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Madeline Carroll, Kathy Baker
The tagline for MACHINE GUN PREACHER, the “based on a true story” action-drama starring Gerard Butler as Sam Childers, a reformed felon-turned-machine-gun-wielding-orphan-saver, flatly states that, “Hope is the Greatest Weapon of All,” when, if MACHINE GUN PREACHER is to be believed, hope means nothing unless it’s backed-up by serious amounts of firepower and the willingness to use said firepower unapologetically for the general good. That idea, exemplified by the United States involvement in three wars/occupations this past decade, makes MACHINE GUN PREACHER, both an unapologetic defense of “preventive war” (in microcosm) and a problematic celebration of violence as long as the ends are well-intentioned and the perpetrators deserving of that violence (by definition, they are).
When we meet a pre-MACHINE GUN PREACHER Sam Childers (Butler), he’s a walking, talking cliché, a bad-tempered, anti-authoritarian, soon-to-be ex-felon and biker completing another involuntary incarceration in the state penitentiary. Luckily for Childers, he has a family on the outside willing to take him in. His wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), however, has undergone a spiritual conversion in Sam’s lengthy absence. She’s been “born-again” in the evangelical Christian sense. Not unexpectedly, she’s also stopped stripping for a living (she’s taken a lesser-paying, if more morally sensible, blue-collar job). Initially, Sam wants nothing to do with the religion thing. Instead, he heads for the nearest biker bar to reconnect with a longtime friend and fellow biker, Donnie (Michael Shannon). A near-death experience (a Native-American hiker’s, not Childers’) convinces him radical life changes are necessary. The evidence onscreen, however, suggests Sam has traded in one addiction (drugs and alcohol) for another (God). At minimum, he’s traded in one addictive behavior for another.
Sam becomes a father and, as a contractor, a successful businessman, but when he travels to East Africa as part of a relief mission to rebuild homes destroyed through ongoing war in Uganda, his life changes again. He befriends a local soldier, Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), who volunteers to take Sam across the border into strife-ridden Sudan. There, he encounters first-hand the genocidal work of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA attacks villages deemed sympathetic to their opponents, killing men, women, and children. The LRA also kidnaps some of the surviving children, in effect turning them into child soldiers. Moved by what he’s seen and experienced, Sam decides to build an orphanage for the surviving children close to LRA territory. Limited resources and the LRA’s continued presence (and occasional attacks) makes the continuing existence of the orphanage tenuous at best and unlikely at worst.
MACHINE GUN PREACHER contrasts Sam’s unorthodox, questionable activities in the Sudan, his willingness to not only defend the orphanage with whatever firearms happen to be available, but also to attack (and kill) where he thinks necessary to save the orphanage, with a more traditional, non-confrontational approach, exemplified by a red-haired aid worker who, unsurprisingly proves to be dangerously naïve (in Keller and Forster’s eyes, that is), and Sam’s fraying relationship with his long-suffering, ever-patient wife and his teenage daughter, Paige (Madeline Carroll). While Sam becomes increasingly obsessed with saving as many Sudanese children as possible, even going as far as selling expensive tools and equipment to cover food and shelter for the children, he also neglects his wife and daughter, making him (slightly) less heroic, minus the real-world complexity that MACHINE GUN PREACHER’s RAMBO-inspired, visceral, primal action beats repeatedly, consistently undermine.
Those action beats, competently orchestrated by director Marc Forster (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, THE KITE RUNNER, STRANGER THAN FICTION, STAY, FINDING NEVERLAND, MONSTER’S BALL) from Jason Keller’s adaptation of Childer’s memoir, “Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan,” raise more questions than they answer, specifically about Childer’s personality (and flaws), and, more importantly, whether Childer’s story is unique and, therefore, non-repeatable, or a model for action in developing countries. With the U.S. still heavily involved in two armed conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraq) and lesser involved in a third (Libya), not to mention military bases numbering not in the dozens, but in the hundreds around the globe, should we treat MACHINE GUN PREACHER as positive, uplifting entertainment, minus actual enlightenment about what role, if any, the U.S. should have in developing countries, or should we treat it as a précis for military-empowered activism? Forster, Keller, and Butler would prefer if we accepted the former but secretly believed the latter.